If a group of community-minded young people comes knocking on city hall’s door, you might want to pay close attention. When Jackson Young Professionals (JxnYP) did the knocking to float the idea for a new community event, the answer was a resounding yes. Recently, I got to see the result when I strolled the streets of downtown Jackson. Dubbed Bright Walls, the exciting mural festival went on for days, and created amazing public art that will last for years.
Thirteen artists from across the country and as far away as Mexico, Brazil, and The Netherlands spent six days transforming blank building walls into spectacular works of art. Big crowds of spectators watched in admiration as outlined designs gradually grew into colorful, unique creations. To make Bright Walls truly a community event, JxnYP spiced things up with food, live music, and daily themes. I was there for Rock The Block day, which featured local radio station K105.3 on site, a local artist “mini-mural” contest, and a live concert featuring Your Generation in Concert. When dark clouds threatened to drench festival-goers assembling for the outdoor concert, JxnYP quickly pivoted and found an indoor location – the nearby Michigan Theatre. The new location didn’t seem to dampen spirits at all as the auditorium quickly filled up with an enthusiastic crowd.
Bright Walls team and artists. Photo courtesy of Maury Page Photography.
The Festival Started with LOVE
If it wasn’t for Clay McAndrews and Leslie Youndahl’s penchant for traveling and taking pictures of murals, the Bright Walls festival might never have come to light. Clay and Leslie – both members of Jackson Young Professionals – had been dating for a while and Clay decided it was time to pop the question. In true mural lover fashion, he searched for a mural festival and found one that had just concluded in Boston. But the mural that would serve as the backdrop for his proposal had to be extra special. When he spotted one that said LOVE in giant letters, he knew that was the ideal site. Leslie said yes, and the seeds for Jackson’s mural festival were planted.
“I got to thinking that we’ve made so many great memories photographing murals, it would be great to create a mural festival so other people can create their own memories,” said Clay, a creative consultant at Consumers Energy.
Clay pitched the idea for a mural festival to JxnYP and they loved it! Since promoting Jackson as a great place to live, work, and play is at the heart of the group’s mission, the event was a perfect fit. Clay became a co-director of Bright Walls along with Jaqueline Austin, owner and events director of Think Jackson, a placemaking company. The two of them assembled a team of 12 Jackson Young Professionals with diverse skill sets. Clay is a graphic designer, Jacqueline brought events and urban planning skills, one team member works for the Downtown Development Authority, a few work for nonprofits, and there was even a banker to help with finance.
“We had a well-rounded team that worked really well together,” said Jacqueline. “They went from not knowing each other very well in the beginning to becoming great friends and a team.”
It Continued with a Convincing Plan
To ensure the event’s success, JxnYP spent a month putting together a very detailed plan, which included reading the city’s master plan to make sure they were lining up with the city’s goals. They also put together a presentation to lay out their plans for the festival and convince the city and other sponsors to support their endeavor.
“We knew going in that we needed to have the city as a partner,” said Jacqueline. “The city was so excited they jumped on board day one. We couldn’t have asked for more enthusiasm. They supported us in any way they could, from supplying street barricades, to helping us arrange for tents, to advice.”
The response was very positive from the business community, as well. Soon, JxnYP had raised over $130,000 from sponsors ranging from Consumers Energy and Flagstar Bank to Grand River Brewery and JTV. Some are already hoping for a repeat performance.
“I think the festival surprised the community. We had no idea what kind of draw this would be and it surpassed all expectations in every way,” said Bart Hawley, owner of JTV, a huge supporter of the Jackson community. “The Jackson Young Professionals planned, organized, and operated this event perfectly. We can’t wait to do this again!”
Artists Brought the Creative Fire
To help assemble just the right team of mural artists, Clay called on Jeremiah Britton, his former classmate at Central Michigan University. Jeremiah, originally from Jackson, is now a well known artist in New York and twice has painted in the Murals in the Market festival at Detroit’s Eastern Market. With his contacts and knowledge of the community, he chose artists that he knew Jackson residents would appreciate. Britton booked seven of the artists, and Clay booked five.
Each artist brought a unique style to their work. Using paint buckets and spray cans, they developed creations covering the gamut from nature and abstract art to typography and mystical creatures. Judging from the responses they’ve received, Clay and Jeremiah’s artist choices were very much in tune with the community.
“The impact is phenomenal. I’ve heard nothing but fantastic reviews from the community and business owners,” said Clay. “It’s great for Jackson, and leaves the community with free art.”
“It’s getting people downtown and seeing Jackson in a new light,” added Jacqueline. “The fact that a group our size was able to pull off this huge event showed there are people who really care about the community.”
Want to know the rest of Clay and Leslie’s love story? They recently got married and had wedding photos taken … where else? … in front of one of the Bright Walls murals!